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Defining, Assigning and Measuring: Accountability Challenges in 21st Century Governance

EDITOR’S NOTE: We continue our publication of the ASPA Founders’ Forum Fellow (FFF) papers with this piece, number 10 of 12. As stated previously, the papers will appear in alphabetical order, with two papers posted each week until all 12 are online.

Laura Rothlisberger

An increasing demand for accountability exists at all levels of government.  For example, on June 13, 2011, President Barack Obama issued an Executive Order titled, “Delivering an Efficient, Effective, and Accountable Government” (Office of the Press Secretary, 2011).  In this executive order he emphasized his administration’s commitment to accountability.  He mentioned programs such as the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board and the Accountable Government Initiative that are intended to increase both government-wide and individual agency accountability.

Many challenges exist in this age of accountability.  This paper will describe three challenges.  First, it explores the challenge of defining accountability.  Second, it describes the challenge of assigning responsibilities.  Finally it articulates the challenge of measuring accountability in a complex environment.

Defining Accountability
In spite of this emphasis on accountability, the term accountability does not have a well-defined meaning according to Schillemans in a 2011 Administration & Society article.  Multiple attempts have been made to create a clear meaning for accountability in the public administration sphere.  These attempts have been helpful in moving toward an agreed upon term, but a definitive meaning and understanding has not yet been determined.  When a commonly used term remains ambiguous, there are challenges to create standards and expectations.

Behn in his 2001 book, Rethinking Democratic Accountability, introduced four different types of accountability: accountability for finances, accountability for fairness, accountability for the use of power, and accountability for performance.  By separating these four types of accountability, Behn has created useful lenses through which accountability can be assessed and measured.

Acknowledging these types of accountability, Koppell in a 2005 Public Administration Review article titled “Pathologies of Accountability: ICANN and the Challenge of Multiple Accountabilities Disorder,” presented five ‘Conceptions of Accountability.’  These conceptions include: transparency (revealing the facts about performance), liability (facing the consequences for performance), controllability (acting in line with the principal’s desires), responsibility (following the rules), and responsiveness (meeting expectations).  These five conceptions provide a framework for analyzing accountability concerns and priorities.

A unifying understanding of accountability by the public sector will facilitate understanding by individual organizations of their responsibilities are in regards to accountability.  They will be able to prioritize what information they should share with stakeholders and how to approach their work.

Assigning Accountability
Ultimately when considering accountability at the governance level, elected officials and managers will be held accountable.  Within the management level, accountability is still difficult to assign in situations where multiple managers and elected officials are involved.

Disaster emergency situations are a prime example of this because nonprofits, local, state, and federal governments all become involved in relief efforts.  This “decentralized organizational structure” creates “diffused accountability as decision-makers are isolated and multiple” according to Thévenaz & Resodihardjo in their 2010 International Journal Production Economics article “All the Best Laid Plans…Conditions Impeding Proper Emergency Response.” Diffuse accountability may result in sub-par performance.

Strategies for overcoming this accountability challenge must be discovered.  In an age where governments rarely act in isolation the necessity to assign responsibility and accountability effectively is high.  If roles and responsibilities are clearly defined at the outset of a partnership that is either explicit or implicit, assessing the accountability could be more likely later.

Measuring Performance for Accountability
Measuring performance presents a significant challenge to accountability.  Behn’s (2001) fourth type of accountability, accountability for performance, could be considered the most difficult to assess.  Accountability for performance attempts to measure the consequences of government actions.

When assessing any program, difficulty arises when making a case for causality, or justifying that the specific intervention caused the result.  However, the government is accountable for results.

One reason for this challenge is that, “Complex environmental, social and economic systems create methodological challenges to measuring and evaluating the effectiveness of programs and policies, especially in attributing changes in condition across temporal and spatial scales to a particular intervention” say Keene & Pullin in their 2011 Journal of Environmental Management article ” Realizing an Effectiveness Revolution in Environmental Management.”  Consider an environmental intervention, such as the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) program administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (Chesapeake Bay TMDL).  In the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem many factors influence its health including the weather, individual behavior, and land-use.  However, ultimately the EPA will be held accountable for the health of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.

In order for performance to be measured, resources must exist.  These necessary resources include quality data, funding, and expertise.  Generating these resources present another challenge in an age of accountability.

“Accountability is good—there is little disagreement on this point,” states Koppell in the same 2005 article.  Challenges in accountability exist: when defining what accountability precisely means, when determining the individuals and organizations that will be held accountable, and when measuring performance to hold those individuals and organizations accountable.  As public servants determine solutions to these challenges, accountability will increase and society will improve.

Laura Rothlisberger is a student in the Romney Institute of Public Management at Brigham Young University. Email: [email protected]

Constructive comments and responses to the papers are encouraged and can be submitted directly to the scholar at their email address listed below each article, or by clicking on Post A Comment below each article.

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